Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26
This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
What is vanity? In modern speech, vanity is an excessive belief in one’s attributes, usually physical but it can also be used in terms of abilities or accomplishments. Vanity is boasting without humility about one’s greatness. Carly Simon had a song with a chorus that went, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain; I'll bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you?”
Historically, the word ‘vanity’ had a slightly different understanding, without the self-centered focus. It meant something more like uselessness. The NIV translates the word ‘meaningless.” The last words in today’s Old Testament lesson seem to say that the hard work and toil of life is without worth, “a striving after wind.” This is a rather depressing thought. Why do we bother if everything we do is meaningless?
But the passage itself does not really say that everything is meaningless. It says something much, much different. The reality is that everything that is done apart from God is meaningless. Chasing after our selfish desires is vanity. Pursuing our own agendas is futile. Promoting our own greatness is a striving after wind. We are nothing without God.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a roof over our heads and clothes for our backs. We pursue activities that we enjoy like sports and the arts. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We bond with others for companionship and to have a life that is full of love. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
Yet, we are reminded that everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move on. Though we hope they have learned all the right lessons, they go their own way and do their own things; they see the world from a unique point of view. Sometimes old traditions die as new ones are created. We lose interest in our hobbies and follow the latest trends. Memories fade and knowledge changes. Even our friendships end. In a few generations we will be little more than a gravestone in a cemetery. Eventually everything we have worked for will be gone.
We live in a world where we are expected to chase after good things. We are bombarded with advertisements that tell us our life will be better if only we buy this car or go to this resort. We are encouraged to buy this brand of bottled water or that sort of bread, and we are promised that if we do we will be happy. We work so we can afford these things, but in the end they do not make us happy. We are left unsatisfied, wanting more. This is what it means to strive after the wind.
This is not to say that we should not have water or bread. It does not mean we should not work. It does not even mean that we should not enjoy our life. After all, God has given us life and our life is not meaningless. It is not vanity to put food on the table or even to have a home and a car or go on a vacation. Vanity is working for these things, not God. And while they might make us happy for a moment, God wants us to have something better: joy.
The teacher writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Despite the seemingly cynical attitude of most of this passage, the teacher also knows that there is value in the work that is done according to God’s will and purpose. When we use our gifts and respond to our calling, we’ll find true joy in our work. It will not be toil or a striving after the wind. It will not be vanity. It will have power and purpose, and we’ll really know what it means to be satisfied and happy.
It might seem like there is none happier than the man in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, he has so much grain that it won’t even fit in his barns. He decides to tear down the old barn and build a bigger one. And then he says, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry.” This is the mistake we make, thinking that our stuff is eternal. Our souls do not need bigger barns and higher piles of grain. Our souls do not need faster cars or bigger houses. Our souls do not even need water and bread. Our souls need God.
I think it is interesting that we see similar language in the verses from Ecclesiastes and Luke. Both talk about eating, drinking and being merry. The difference is that the teacher knows that his enjoyment comes from doing God’s work. The man thinks he deserves to eat and drink and be merry because of his own accomplishments. Which attitude leads to eternal life?
“But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be?” Now here’s the hard part for us: our hard work and toil is not always outwardly selfish. Who among us hasn’t worked hard to make life better for our kids? We scrimp so that they can go to college. We pay for lessons and books and materials so that they can become all they have been created to be. We provide them with a place to live, food to eat and clothes for their backs. This is not selfish. We even save so that when we die, we can leave them with something that will make their lives easier. We buy insurance so that they will not be left with debts they cannot pay. We invest so that they will receive an inheritance. This is neither selfish nor self-centered.
I think it is interesting, though, that the man in the story is storing grain. He has more grain than he can possibly ever use. What will happen to that grain? Will it benefit his children if it is left inside a barn? Will it feed anyone if it becomes moldy or infested with insects? The man’s desire to keep all his grain in a barn was vanity because hoarding it would make it worthless. How much better is it to take the excess, which is a gift of God, and share it with others? Perhaps the man knows what he will do with that grain, but what will happen when he dies? Will his heirs know what to do with it? Will they use it properly? Or will it go to waste?
God asks, “Whose shall they be?” The hard part for us is that we still want to prepare for the future so that our children will not suffer from want. We save to ensure that we’ll have enough to get us through to death without relying on our kids. We insure our lives so that our kids won’t be left with our burdens. There are certainly places in the Bible which encourage this good stewardship of our material possessions. But where do we draw the line? How much is too much? In the end, it isn’t us that will face the question, “Whose shall they be?” Our children will have to deal with it.
Unfortunately, many families do not deal with it well. My parents did not leave us much, but they left us enough and as executor of my father’s estate it was up to me to make sure that everything was rightly divided. It was easy. We had no squabbles. I think if I’d handed my brother and sister each a dollar they would have accepted my judgment. We didn’t fight over the dishes or the furniture. I’ve heard stories of families that had to go to court to settle disputes. They fight over every penny and end up hating one another.
I can see that in the Gospel story. In that day there were well defined laws about inheritance. The oldest was given a double share of the estate to carry on the family name and business. All the other children received a single portion. The man who approached Jesus was probably the younger of the two, and he felt entitled to an equal portion. “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus was neither a judge nor an arbitrator. Perhaps the inheritance laws were not always fair. Perhaps there was good reason why the brother needed the help of a judge.
But Jesus was concerned about something greater: greed. “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” We strive to have more because we think more will make us happy. The reality is that we will only find joy in contentment with what we have. We are truly happy when we acknowledge that we have enough and that it all comes from God’s hand.
Paul writes, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.” We are called to live a life that rejects the attitudes and actions that are vanity like “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” These are self-centered and a striving after wind. But God has made us new. In Christ we are transformed into a new creation, gifted and called to live for Him. Paul reminds us that we are not alone in this, that all those who believe, no matter who they are, become part of Christ and will share in His glory. This is why we were created; this is our reason for life, this is where will find joy.
The fruit of our toil, when used solely for ourselves, is meaningless and vanity. Yet, money itself is not bad. When we are rich toward God, we give the fruit of our labor to honor Him. The same is true of our time and talents. The life lived well is the one that is lived for Him. “When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.” Instead of rushing through life filling our barns with grain that will eventually spoil, joy is found when we go forth in faith and do God’s work in the world. This is our purpose, the reason for our blessings.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It doesn’t have to be. The life lived in praise and thanksgiving of God is the life that experiences true joy. The psalmist writes, “Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all ye lands. Serve Jehovah with gladness: Come before his presence with singing.” We all know that our work is not toil when we are doing something we love with an attitude of joy. So let us all praise God every moment of every day, living and working for His glory. This is not vanity or a striving after wind; it is a gift from God’s own hand.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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